Holly for all Seasons

Small white flowers of Holly (Ilex aquifolium) amid the prickly, glossy leaves in bright sunlight
The normally inconspicuous flowers of Holly (Ilex aquifolium) highlighted by bright sunlight © Karen Andrews

The vast majority of us only notice Holly at Christmas. The brilliance of its bright red berries against glossy green leaves stand out in winter hedgerows. We are effectively blind to its evergreen presence for the rest of the year.

Plant Blindness

The holly bush photographed above offers a perfect example of our everyday plant blindness. It flowers at the perimeter of a local church’s gardens, alongside a major bus stop, on a busy main road. It’s invisible in plain sight. Everyone (except this botanist) walked straight past its late spring flowers. 

Male and Female

Holly is dioecious. This botanical term means that the male and female flowers are found on separate bushes. Gardeners often complain that their holly bush does not have any berries. The berries are borne on female holly bushes. The flowers are insect-pollinated. The female bush will need the company of a male bush nearby to produce berries. Impatient gardeners may also have to wait until their holly bush is 3-5 years old before it produces berries.

Holly (Ilex aquifolium) flowers; male above, female below
Photo credit:  MPF. Wikimedia Creative Commons 

Biodiversity Supporter

Holly may go unappreciated by humans for much of the year, but this British and European native supports a wide range of biodiversity. It is especially appreciated by birds, for whom it provides a well-camouflaged nesting site and winter food source.

Mistle Thrush (Turdus viscivorus)

According to the RSPB, the Mistle Thrush relishes Holly berries. It displays all the tendencies of a toddler at Christmas refusing to share its Christmas presents. This bird may take its Latin name from Mistletoe, but it will defend its Holly berries aggressively from other birds.

Mutual Benefit

Holly’s relationship with birds works to their mutual benefit. Holly berries provide a food source. The seeds pass through the birds and thus get widely distributed. The same berries are toxic to humans, dogs, cats and horses. 

Selective Friendships

Holly is selective in its friendships. It can be downright prickly towards browsing animals. Browsing does not suggest that animals are peering in at Holly’s Christmas shop window displays of berries. Oh no, Holly does not appreciate leaf nibblers at any time of year. It may not be able to mount the aggressive, mobile attack of the Mistle Thrush, but do not underestimate the ability of plants to mount a successful defence. 

Spiny Defence Tactics

Look carefully at Holly leaves and you will find that there are different shapes – and some are more prickly than others. Researchers have found that wild Holly reacts to animals eating their leaves. It produces replacement leaves with more unpalatable spines at the dastardly grazers’ height. The more intense the nibbling, the more prickly Holly gets. Isn’t Holly clever?

Check out the leaves on your Holly berry decorations this year. Unless you have an ornamental species, they are probably not all the same. Some have more spines than others.

Holly works hard for biodiversity all year. It tolerates summer drought and winter frosts. Remember in 2019: Holly is not just for Christmas.*

Snow on holly leaves and berries
Traditional snowy Christmas look of red Holly berries with glossy, evergreen leaves
Photo credit: Stuart Wilding – Holly Berries in Snow

Editor’s Notes

Holly’s Latin name

Different sources give varying explanations for the meaning of Holly’s Latin name or binomial: Ilex aquifoliumIlex comes from Quercus ilex, the Holm Oak because of the similarity in leaves. The aquifolium part is more tricky. Many people think that the first part ‘aqui’ refers to the Latin word for water aqua, an allusion to the shiny surface of holly leaves that can look like water. Others believe that the term is a corruption of acrifolium meaning sharp leaf. Botanical Latin is like the Esperanto of the botanical world, it does not follow all the rules of Classical Latin. The RHS Latin for Gardeners gives aquifolius, -a, -um as Holly-leaved. This is because the term is used to describe holly-like leaves on other plants. (See third blog on Mahonia aquifolium: Mahonia has holly-like leaves).

Not Just for Christmas*

A clarification for international followers: this is a reference to a long-running annual UK advertising campaign for the Dog’s Trust. It encourages reflection on the long-term commitment of giving a dog as a Christmas present, as so many dogs are abandoned after Christmas.

Gallery of Holly Images

There are no known grazing animals on the University of Reading’s Whiteknights campus. It nonetheless demonstrates varying degrees of prickliness on site.

Copyright Note 

© Karen Andrews

Karen does not seek or receive any commercial interest from this blog. These pages illustrate my love of plants, botany, biodiversity, gardens and creative expression. There is always so much to learn about plant diversity. I love sharing. This blog is a showcase for my own photography, commentary on plants and wildlife, gardens and other places visited, horticulture and related topics.

© Karen Andrews 2018 onwards. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Andrews and BotanyKaren.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

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